Do you know why you think what you think?
If I’d asked that six months ago, you probably would have responded with a confident “yes”. Of course you know why you prefer Apple to PC. Why you chose your last holiday destination. Why you support one political party over another.
Today, though? Maybe you’re not so sure. If you’ve been following the coverage of the disinformation campaign surrounding the US Presidential Election, you’re probably all too uncomfortably aware of just how easy it can be to change another person’s mind. Not just about how they think about a product, a policy, or another human being but, remarkably, how they think about themselves.
Petter Johansson is an experimental psychologist who spends his time figuring out ways to prove to others that who they think they are is wrong. The most efficient means of doing so, he’s found, is magic; entertainment founded on the illusion of choice and subtle manipulation.
In the experiment demonstrated in the video above, Johansson asks participants to look at two images of people’s headshots, and choose which they find most attractive. He then slides the image over to them, and occasionally asks why they chose one over another.
Here’s the trick: Johansson is actually holding two cards in each hand, and several times per participant, he would slide over the second one, which actually depicted the face they did not choose.
Less than 20% of subjects noticed the trick.
What’s more, those that didn’t would justify their selection of the face they hadn’t actually chosen with the same level of emotion, specificity, and certainty as those they did choose. Even when the headshots were markably different – for instance, one model with blonde hair, the other a brunette – the subject would happily explain that they prefer brunettes even though they’d initially selected the blonde.
Johansson calls this ‘choice blindness’: simply, a phenomenon that reveals how little people know about their own preferences. Similar experiments have been performed with taste, smell, and consumer products, with similar results.
To analyse whether similar principles applied when manipulating more meaningful elements of a person’s identity, a slightly more technical experiment was trialled.
In the lead up to the Swedish federal election, Johansson’s team asked people on the street to conduct a policy survey. Each was asked to state their voting intentions, before marking on a scale how much they supported or rejected 12 policies.
As they marked the scale, the surveyor marked their own version, mirroring each choice the participant made. For instance, if the subject took a hard-left stance, the surveyor would make a mark on the hard-right end of the scale.
Through sleight of hand, the surveyor’s copy was attached to the participant’s survey, and they were asked to explain their choices.
Once again, very few participants recognised the trick. Disturbingly, however, they were overwhelmingly more likely to assume they’d interpreted the question incorrectly rather than realising their answer had been changed.
In total, 90% of answers were changed not just without participants noticing, but with them actually reasoning why they’d made a choice that they actually hadn’t.
By the end of the survey, 10% of participants indicated they would be voting for the party they’d initially said they would vote against. 19% went from having a clear preference to uncertain. 7% went from uncertain to indicating a clear preference. And 12% remained undecided.
On a grander scale, such experiments could have the potential to change entire elections.
Johansson has demonstrated that what we perceive as self-choice is actually self-interpretation. When our choice is questioned, we don’t explain it, we rationalise it. We make what sense of it we can in such a swift fashion that it seems not just to others, but ourselves, that we believe in our choice. But if we take a little time to think about it, we may actually find we never did.
It may sound terrible, but there are positives to this phenomenon. It proves that no matter how much anyone believes they believe in something, they have the capacity to change, or at least to consider other opinions in a rational way.
As Confucius said, “true wisdom is knowing what you don’t know”. If we can learn to accept this, to question ourselves, we can only grow stronger.